February 10, 2005

Not in Heaven

This is the promised follow-up to the previous post. There is an halakhic expression: hatora lo' bashamayim hi (התורה לא בשמים היא) - the Tora is not in heaven. It comes from the following passage of the Talmud. (Since the quote is much too long for my usual triplicate format, I will just quote the translation from here. I have highlighted some key words to help those who want to go back and forth.)

השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו אמר להם אם הלכה כמותי חרוב זה יוכיח נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה ואמרי לה ארבע מאות אמה אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי אמת המים יוכיחו חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול גער בהם רבי יהושע אמר להם אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה אתם מה טיבכם לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של רבי אליעזר ועדיין מטין ועומדין חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי מן השמים יוכיחו יצאתה בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר שהלכה כמותו בכל מקום עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר לא בשמים היא מאי לא בשמים היא אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה אחרי רבים להטות

אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו אמר ליה מאי עביד קודשא בריך הוא בההיא שעתא אמר ליה קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני

On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,' they retorted. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!' Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' they rejoined. Again he urged: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,' whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?' Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.' What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'

Talmud Bavli Baba Mesi`a 59B

In other words, no miracle or sign from heaven, even to the extent of a heavenly voice calling out "the halakha is according to so-and-so" is considered proof of your interpretation of God's word. The only valid authority is tradition, i.e. the majority opinion of the previous generation. The Tora (now that it has been given) is not made in heaven, it is made right here on earth, by mortal men.

As an aside, I have always loved that last line: nishuni banay (ניצחוני בני) - my sons have defeated me. (Or, more precisely, 'my sons are victorious over me'. Nisahon [ניצחון] means victory, it is related to nesah [נצח] - eternity.) It is an example of the playfulness often found in the Talmudic text. Remember, the Talmud is a record of actual discussions between real people. Nishuni banay doesn't really make literal sense (if God is saying it), but it effectively conveys the message that Man's fate is in his own hands, and God approves.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at February 10, 2005 11:15 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

It's so hard for many to accept that differents opinions may all be correct.

Posted by: muse at February 11, 2005 06:09 AM Permalink

I have always liked this particular Talmudic passage; perhaps because, selfishly, it underscores my belief in how G-d operates in the world. Many people get angry at G-d when "bad things happen". It has long been my opinion that we are given the means to correct all the wrongs of the world, that it is in fact our job, our lot, to make this the best world possible.

Posted by: Rachel Ann at February 12, 2005 10:08 PM Permalink

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